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Will Jesuit identity help Pope Francis repair 'fractured church'?

The Catholic Church is getting not only its first Latin American pope, but its first Jesuit leader. He hails from an order known for outreach and fresh thinking.

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Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals, inside the Sistine Chapel, at the Vatican, Thursday.

Courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano/AP

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Jorge Mario Bergoglio may be the first pope from the Americas, and the first to call himself Francis. But he is also the first Jesuit ever to head the Roman Catholic Church – perhaps surprising given the order’s visible prominence in 112 nations on six continents. 

His Jesuit identity, as much as his Argentine heritage, may inform new Pope Francis as he helps shift the church of 1.2 billion away from a period of scandal, corruption, and doubt – a “fractured church” in Europe and North America, as John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, calls it.

As Francis’s views are parsed, it appears he does not share Pope Benedict’s emphasis on a smaller, more orthodox, and arguably “purer” church, but is emphasizing outreach and a willingness to look freshly at problems. South American liberation theology advocate Leonardo Boff, removed from his teaching post by Benedict in a bitter church fight decades ago, has praised the choice of Francis as a new direction for Catholicism.

The Jesuits, who have been called “God’s commandos,” have long been influential – an evangelical order that values learning and an openness associated with a distinct spiritual tradition. The order pioneered missions to the Americas. The earliest exchanges between China and the West are found in the journals of Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Italian Jesuit. Jesuits schooled Descartes, Molière, Arthur Conan Doyle, Fidel Castro, and Bill Clinton; ran thousands of colleges, schools, hospitals, and charities; and became known for sharp dialogue and debate as the 20th century ushered in science and modernity.

Yet until this week, the order, which was founded in the 16th century by Ignatius Loyola and whose staff in Rome lists some 20,000 employees, had never seen one of their rank elected to lead the church.

Partly, experts say, this is due to a strong anticlerical and anti-hierarchical streak among Jesuits, who often discourage devotees from becoming bishops.

Jesuits take a vow of obedience to the pope – a famous Ignatian rule says if the church “shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black." But the Jesuits are also famed for doing some of the more ambitious, exploratory, and often liberal thinking and research in the church.

They helped spearhead in part the major late 20th century rethink of Catholicism known as Vatican 2, that the now-retired Benedict spent much of his clerical life opposing.

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“There has been a tension, off and on, but especially after modernity, between Jesuits and the papacy,” says Tom Beaudoin, a professor of theology at Fordham University in New York. “The Jesuits have been looked at by other prelates as maybe just a little too independent.”

“The Jesuits' loyalty to the church is reflected by their loyalty to their order,” offers Frank Flinn, author of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, who argues that Francis “has the qualities to surprise us…. He comes from a view that to find God, you go out and work with poor people. He is strong on that.”

Mr. Flinn also thinks that Jesuits have, so far, remained fairly clear of the sexual-abuse scandals that rocked the church in the US and Europe.

Even Jesuits who do become cardinals "tend not to move in 'cardinal circles,' where they get to know each other. That's not our world," said Gerard Stockhausen, executive secretary of the Jesuit Conference USA, to the Catholic News Service after hearing that the new pope came from his order.

The new pope’s “Jesuit background will be extremely important in determining what Francis is all about,” offers Walter Modrys, a former pastor at St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in New York, saying that the exercise of spiritual “discernment” and listening to the nature of “God’s calling” that is paramount in the “Ignatian spirituality” is key.

Since the white puff of smoke indicated his election this week, Francis has been widely depicted as humble, a prelate more interested in pastoral work than theology, a man who combines an interest in social justice and the poor with conservative views on church doctrine.

The latter is likely to mean that Francis will not initiate reforms on core Catholic teachings on such issues as celibacy for priests, birth control, women’s ordination, and gay marriage.

“…the Cardinals wanted someone morally beyond reproach, humble, interested in the social justice for the poor and perhaps willing to shake up the Curia,” said Gary Macy, a church historian at the University of Santa Clara, in comments to the Catholic Reporter. “They did not, however, want someone who would stray from the theological path set by the former popes. This election was probably as much of a surprise as the College was capable of making.”

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